Once Again, Russian Internet Propaganda Efforts Shown To Be Much Bigger Than Originally Believed
from the weaponized-bullshit dept
Early on, as the scope of Russia’s disinformation and hacking efforts were being revealed, there was a tendency on many fronts to downplay the depth and breadth of the problem. For example, early whistleblower revelations of Russia’s troll factories–which pump bile and misinformation into the internet bloodstream 24/7–were downplayed as just a few harmless sods posting lame memes in broken English. In time, it became clear that the efforts were larger, broader, and far more sophisticated than initially believed.
The now infamous hack of the DNC was similarly downplayed at first. For years, thanks in large part to nonsense and conspiracy theory, there were widespread claims the DNC had hacked itself. Others implied (and still do) that the hack was some kind of mass delusion. We now know the hack was part of a documented attack by Russian intelligence, only exposed due to some sloppy opsec by Russian intelligence agents.
Here on planet Earth, one thing keeps being made abundantly clear: the scope of Russia’s disinformation and hacking efforts are continually being revealed as much bigger than both “conventional wisdom” and crackpot wingnut theory dictated. The latest case in point: the Seth Rich conspiracy, which proclaimed that the DNC staffer had been covertly murdered instead of being robbed, has infected brains across the internet for years now. While the theory was never true, it gained traction thanks to a wide variety of voices ranging from Wikileaks to Fox News.
But a new multi-part report notes that, once again, what was surmised to be just random conspiracy birthed in the bowels of 4chan actually had its foundations in Russian disinformation. The report notes that the Seth Rich theory was first planted by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, in a phony “bulletin” intended to read like a legitimate intelligence report. The apparent goal: to spread doubt about Russia’s involvement and imply the GRU hack of the DNC was actually an inside job. Looking back, you’d have to conclude it was at least partially effective.
This inside job narrative was also propped up by a number of flimsy companion conspiracies claiming transfer speed data “proved” that the DNC had hacked itself. We’ve already discussed how that well circulated claim, printed unskeptically in several mainstream publications, was based largely on fluff and nonsense, circulated by internet trolls pretending to be anonymous intelligence analysts.
Whatever their origins, it didn’t take long for the planted stories to get picked up by bogus news sites, then funneled into more mainstream arenas:
The purported details in the SVR account seemed improbable on their face: that Rich, a data director in the DNC?s voter protection division, was on his way to alert the FBI to corrupt dealings by Clinton when he was slain in the early hours of a Sunday morning by the former secretary of state?s hit squad.
Yet in a graphic example of how fake news infects the internet, those precise details popped up the same day on an obscure website, whatdoesitmean.com, that is a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda. The website?s article, which attributed its claims to ?Russian intelligence,? was the first known instance of Rich?s murder being publicly linked to a political conspiracy.
None of this is to say that there isn’t plenty of home-grown domestic stupidity to go around that has nothing to do with Russia. Americans are, if it hadn’t been made clear by now, prone to all manner of bullshit–whether it’s the Momo conspiracy theory or bogus news reports (like the recent “cell phones cause horns to grow in kids!” report). At the same time, it’s not hard to see how this gullibility can be exploited, whether we’re talking about foreign or domestic actors. In effect, the internet, for all of its benefits, has also helped weaponize stupidity.
Historically Russia’s efforts were previously believed to be simply the domain of the Internet Research Agency and the Russian GRU. This is the first instance of the efforts also being tied to the SVR, an agency infosec reporters say will likely play a significantly bigger role in disinformation ops moving forward:
The reason this is particularly interesting is the SVR hadn't been accused of being behind Russia's norm-breaking election meddling in 2016; that was the GRU and the IRA. But as @AndreiSoldatov has written, the SVR may be poised to take the lead in 2020: https://t.co/RVN5y9TPHM
— Kevin Collier (@kevincollier) July 9, 2019
Again, while the conspiracy may have been birthed by Russian intelligence and amplified by Russian news outlets like RT and Sputnik, American entertainment outlets like Fox News and Infowars played a huge role in spreading the nonsense. There’s a universe of grifters (including many mainstream journalists) that parroted the claim for three years, few (any?) of which have actually expressed contrition or genuine remorse for their role in the idiotic misinformation parade. Another key player was Julian Assange, whose reputation these days simply ain’t what it used to be:
The Russian effort to exploit Rich?s tragic death didn?t stop with the fake SVR bulletin. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the Russian government-owned media organizations RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories that baselessly alleged that Rich, a relatively junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that had been leaked to WikiLeaks. It was an idea first floated by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who on Aug. 9, 2016, announced a $20,000 reward for information about Rich?s murder, saying ? somewhat cryptically ? that ?our sources take risks.?
This might not have been quite as big of a deal if the effort hadn’t bubbled into the mainstream belief structure of American government, undermining efforts at political and election security. As the report notes, the conspiracy theory was also pushed heavily by Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who at one point told 60 Minutes the Rich murder was a “contract kill, obviously.” Granted, the damage is now done, and correcting the record will be all but impossible in the minds of those who still cling tightly to this particular steaming pile of disinformation dogshit.
If you spend any time online, it’s clear that a lot of folks still underestimate the scope of Russia’s disinformation efforts. Many still don’t quite grok how these efforts can help undermine an already shaky trust in the established press, which in turns lets dictators like Putin muddy the discourse waters, obscure rampant criminality and corruption, and weaponize existing stupidity and dissent. And yes–the United States has a long, proud history of engaging in similar behavior, especially in Central and South America. That doesn’t make what Russia has been up to any less of a problem.
While we may become somewhat inoculated to it with some time and a little work, internet disinformation is a genuine problem that most folks still aren’t taking seriously. There’s a universe of reasons the US is so susceptible to it, including substandard education, even worse mental health care, and the failure to adequately fund quality (especially local) journalism. And when you’ve still got huge swaths of folks (including a shrinking segment of popular journalists) insisting the problem either isn’t real or doesn’t matter, it’s abundantly clear we have a lot of work to do when it comes to building a cultural immunity to weaponized bullshit.